Interview with Jenni Gold, filmmaker (Writer, Director, and Producer!) behind documentary CINEMABILITY: THE ART OF INCLUSION, featuring Jamie Foxx, Ben Affleck, Bill Macy, Geena Davis, and more. It was on Oct. 5th and is available -. The trailer and more info about the filmmaker are below the Q&A. Enjoy!
Q: Do you feel that discluding large populations of people in entertainment industry is counterintuitive to entertainment industry’s goal of reaching as many people as possible?
Jenni Gold: Yes. When you have a goal of reaching the maximum, you shouldn’t overlook the group that is 20% of the population. The numbers are huge, but people don’t want to think about disability. You have the occasional film, but it’s usually a stereotypical portrayal. MadMax Fury Road, was a great example of a powerful woman with a disability that didn’t stop her.
When people would come to a screening of ours, they often didn’t know what it was exactly. Maybe they came because of celebrities, but they had no idea what they were walking into. But they loved it, and were so happy to have found it.
Q: What would you say to motivate those trying to break into the very competitive entertainment industry who know that they are marginalized, and at greatly increased statistical odds of failure?
Jenni: If it’s something that you HAVE to do, like me – I NEED to tell satires, I need to be in this business that I love, then you just do it. IF it’s your passion you should do it, nothing else will satisfy you in life anyway.
Life is not a dress rehearsal. It’s a one shot deal. This business is hard, so you have to work hard and It’s like that quote from Winston Churchill “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never…”
You have to have the talent and training to pursue it. I had plenty of people tell me that my odds were stacked against me, and it was an impossible ambition to become a director and member of the DGA. It was just about fortitude and never giving up.
Q: The timeline of films was extremely thorough and thought out, ranging from the beginning of movies in black and white all the way through current tv/film. How much time did it take you? And did you have to edit anything out that you wanted to keep in?
Jenni: It took way more time than I thought!!! Over 10 years…. chasing everyone down. Sometimes documentaries take a different path. There was so much left out that we wanted to keep in. Soul Surfer with Kevin Sorbo, and The Mask directed by Peter Bogdanovich didn’t make it. There was a TON of great stuff that just couldn’t make it. The first cut was around 4 hours long.
There’s been a lot of talk about continuing following this further. I think we need (a Bechdel test) for people with disabilities too so I call it the Gold Test.
Q: I liked how RJ Mitte explained that he’d never add disabled into his actor bio, and would go to auditions as just an actor. Did you ever do this when you were starting as a screenwriter/director/producer out too?
Jenni: As a screenwriter I wouldn’t mention it, because it didn’t matter. As a director, who uses a wheelchair, I couldn’t hide it. If I could’ve hid it would I have? I tried to make it a positive since I would be memorable.
Q: I did feel the frustration in the film over not casting a disabled actor for role of Artie Abrams in Glee. What are your thoughts on that?
Jenni: Generally in the movie I tried to share both sides and not input my own feelings, but since you asked …. I am first and foremost a filmmaker. I’m a narrative filmmaker. I’ve never done a documentary before, but I noticed a discrepancy that’s never been covered. Sometimes economically you need to cast a star in that leading role. I’m first and foremost interested in the character, but it makes sense to be realistic and truthful in casting in that character. The only way that actors with disabilities will gain bankability is to start giving them roles that will build their credits.
If you’re constantly casting someone that’s in a non top billing role, then that’s not fair.
When I did a film called Ready Willing & Able, I cast Chris Templeton who was an actress on Young & Restless, and a lot of TV shows, and she used a wheelchair a lot. It takes more effort, but it’s important to try really try, not fake ‘try’ to cast an actor with a disability. And look at the talent we’d be missing if Peter Dinklage didn’t get on Game Of Thrones. People won’t go into an industry if there isn’t going to be work for them, because it’s not practical. it becomes practical if we are hiring. It’s important to see ourselves everywhere, because in real life that’s how it is.
We feel like it’s the last civil rights movement of our time…. disability in all of it’s forms. It’s the one thing that we exclude and nobody notices.
Q: You’re an Emmy winner, director, screenwriter and producer, and the only women in a wheelchair in the Directors Guild. What have been your own biggest challenges?
Jenni: You become an overachiever because you don’t want people to underestimate you – yet people Constantly do.
At a networking event with my husband, strangers would assume that I don’t work. I noticed that when you ask “what do you do?” they wouldn’t ask it back. I wasn’t able to say “I’m a director” to overcome their preconceived notions because they never asked since they assumed I did not work. Alot of these notions are formed by TV/Film portrayals over the years, and that is why I feel passionate about this film.
Q: CinemAbility is very light and flowy, and almost feels like a story rather than a factual documentary. Was it your goal for CinemAbility to not be labeled as a documentary?
Jenni: Yes… First and foremost I wanted it to be entertaining. I’m a narrative storyteller and wanted to showcase something that I noticed, and I wanted it to be funny. If people hear documentary and disability they don’t want to see it, how do you get them to see it, love it, and understand the importance when they don’t want to see it in the first place?
As we were putting it together, alot of our stars were just witty and funny, and it was easy to weave it in there. Our editor was great and knew humor. I like when it’s a film that’s entertaining makes you think and makes you laugh. When you leave you’d want to talk about it.
Q: If you had unlimited budget, what project would you do next?
Jenni: I have a film called Adrenaline which is a Hitchcockian thriller, where the women are the bad guys.. and it’s a lot of fun. I’ve wanted to do this for a while. In post now I directed AAAH ROACH about killer flesh-eating cockroaches that attack a college campus. It’s very high brow! Trying to educate the world gets tiring and you need to blow off some steam and have some fun. I wanted to do something that was creepy. Cockroaches scare me. There are alot of homages to other scenes in other movies – like the shower scene in Psycho. Hitchcock had moveable set shower but I had a real shower. Low budget is tough… Adrenaline is one that I’d love to make with a good budget because it is an awesome thriller. Another is a family film about a cute little puppy called Lucky. They are both up next!
JP: Big thanks to Jenni for taking the time to interview! More info including her love letter to Hollywood and bio are below.
CinemAbility is in part a love letter to Hollywood, an industry that has consumed my life, and partly a wake-up call. Growing up as a wheelchair user I found many of the representations of people with disabilities on screen to be confusing. I remember every year my family would watch Affair to Remember when it aired on TV and I always found it odd that after Deborah Kerr became a wheelchair user she could no longer pursue the man she loved. I remember hating the sappy Movie of the Week style representations in the 70’s and 80’s. The person in the wheelchair was always syrupy sweet or angry and bitter. It wasn’t until Friday the 13th part 2 came out that I saw a wheelchair user the way I wanted to be seen. He was a cool teenager hanging out in the cabin in the woods just like everyone else, he had a girlfriend just like everyone else, and right before he was about to have the night of his life, he got killed by Jason, just like everyone else. His disability was not the topic and was not a factor in his story line.
As a filmmaker who loves the rich history of Hollywood, I realized that a historical overview of disability portrayals had never been done, and that’s certainly one of the aspects of the project that drew me in. It was fresh and exciting, but as we continued to research and interview more people about their recollections of disability portrayals in film it became clear that this was not the whole story. There was more behind these characters and depictions than the stereotypes that emerged, which in some instances are still adhered to. In fact, what we found was much richer, in that there is a strong correlation between these depictions and how people with disabilities are treated, and as portrayals have become more well-rounded and realistic, actual people with disabilities have become more accepted socially, and more integrated into society.
Being a director with a disability and the only DGA wheelchair using director member, the last thing I wanted to do was make another cookie-cutter documentary about disability. But soon I realized that a film like CinemAbility must be made, and if not by me then who? I knew this story first hand and I knew how to tell it. So, slowly I started to pitch it and soon I was interviewing A-List Academy Award Winners, Academy of Motion Picture and Guild Presidents, Producers, Studio Executives and the Showrunners of some of the hottest shows on TV. Hollywood heavyweights came to the forefront because these are caring people who are interested in good causes, and they realize inclusion is important. They all had something viable and important to say and even had some personal realizations that I caught on camera.
By connecting the dots between how people with disabilities are portrayed and how they are perceived in public, we were able to broaden the story beyond disability, to any minority group that has at one time or other been underrepresented or misrepresented in our media. We show how Sydney Poitier films impacted an entire Civil Rights Movement and how Will & Grace opened the door for homosexual civil rights. But where did that leave people with disabilities.
I found out very quickly that the changing of portrayals of disabilities in the 80’s lead us toward a major victory in 1990 with the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but after a backslide in these depictions, we might be able to get into the building, but what was the perception of people like me once we were in it? Would there be job opportunities if perceptions were still based on the understanding one gets from what we see in the media?
It suddenly became clear to me that this film was much more important than just recapping the history of a few interesting characters in the history of film, but about documenting the shaping of perceptions of minority groups through the media. And in doing so, I created a platform to do some reshaping of my own. This film has the ability to break down these stereotypes in a way that had never been done before. And most importantly it is done in a fun and entertaining way! People normally hear about a disability-themed documentary and they run for the hills, but those brave enough to take a peek are shocked to find they have a good time and laugh while also being challenged intellectually. As a storyteller, that is my entire goal.
When we started this project over a decade ago, disability was not included in most diversity initiatives, but that is now changing due to new crop of talented, passionate & determined actors with disabilities who have stormed into Hollywood and aren’t taking “no” for an answer. Enlightened Showrunners and Producers are also starting to take chances on stories, characters, and actors that are “different,” and yet it still remains that hardly anyone with a disability is working behind the scenes in Hollywood. It seems to be the perfect time for CinemAbility to open people’s eyes to something new.
Emmy Winner Jenni Gold is considered a triple threat in the world of entertainment. Her editing and screenwriting skills serve as a foundation for her directorial efforts which have received multiple awards and have placed her among the best in her field. As the only female wheelchair using Director Member of the Directors Guild of America, Jenni is the co-founder of Gold Pictures, Inc, a development and production company which was established in 2001.
In addition to directing the award-winning film CinemAbility, Jenni has become an expert on the power the media has in shaping perceptions, and is an advocate for total inclusion. She serves on the advisory board of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and has produced a number of films and corporate web series, servicing such well-known clients as The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
Jenni recently co-produced the soon-to-be-released film Tiger starring Mickey Rourke and Janel Parrish, and she is in post on a horror/comedy film which she directed titled, Aaah Roach, starring Casper Van Dien, Grace Van Dien, Barry Bostwick, and Jason Mewes. Jenni has also co-written and is developing a number of narrative feature films including the suspense thriller Adrenaline and a family film, Lucky. Jenni was also interviewed along with many other high-powered female directors in the newly released documentary This Changes Everything about discrimination in Hollywood.